It can be done and it can change your lives, writes our family columnist Alexia Santamaria.

The OE is very much a rite of passage for people who live in the southernmost parts of the world. In fact, it's not a term commonly used in the Northern Hemisphere. Many of us will have packed our backpacks somewhere around the age of 20 and ventured off to Europe, the States, Japan or good old London town for a couple of years to seek our own personal definition of an Overseas Experience.

But what about doing it when you're older? Not 25, but as a full-blown responsible tax and mortgage-paying adult — with kids in tow? Many people talk about escaping the rat race for an extended period but few execute the plan. It's a big move to give up your Kiwi life (and stable job) and step out into the unknown, especially with the responsibility of children.

Here are two families who made their family OE dreams a reality — in two very different ways.


Jane Aickin and David Williams

Renting out their New Zealand house six years ago, Jane and David took their three boys Taine, Quinn and Jesse (aged 14, 12 and 11 at the time) to live in Italy for a year. They lived in Piazanno on the Tuscan/Umbrian border for a large part of that year where the whole family worked taking care of a 300ha private park and garden in exchange for board and food.

"It was an incredible experience," says Jane. "We had lots of goals but the goal that was least stated and most powerfully delivered on, is that it brought us together as a family. You had to be each other's mates, entertainment, language-learning student buddies, navigators etc — it was a real level playing field for every member of the family and we got to work with and build on everyone's strengths.

"The kids had varying reactions initially — the 14-year-old, who was the most reluctant and apprehensive, actually found it the most liberating and the easiest. Mr 12 was going to be a footballer so this was heaven, until umpteen rules put paid to him ever playing one competitive game for the club. The 11-year-old thought a big trip overseas sounded great before we went, but struggled initially when it became a reality. But as time progressed, they all adjusted and ended up having a great time. When they came back they were so much more worldly, empathetic to others and clear about what they wanted in life.

"It wasn't all perfect. There were administrative challenges and regulations that differed to New Zealand. Jesse broke his arm and we had to deal with working through rural hospital systems where little English was spoken. Our beautiful dog passed away two weeks after we left Tāmaki Makaurau.

That, in particular, was really incredibly hard.

"To anyone thinking of doing this, I'd say don't be scared by the finances. Yes, you need some money, but you no longer have the cost of insurance, running cars, NZ-priced groceries, perhaps a mortgage.

You can rent out your house and go interest-only so there's no debt servicing. Sell the cars or lock them up and if you volunteer for food and board, it's all very possible."


Jude Watson and Andy Wotton

In 2015 Jude and Andy took their children, James and Tessa (then 12 and 10) backpacking around 20 countries for a year.

Andy Wooton and Jude Watson's children James and Tessa, in the Moroccan Sahara.
Andy Wooton and Jude Watson's children James and Tessa, in the Moroccan Sahara.

"It was a dream and a 'what if' for a very long time. Once we had made up our mind we were going to do it, it then actually took about a year of serious planning," Jude says.

The family began in Kuala Lumpur, then went on to Cambodia, Bangkok, Sri Lanka, India, Bhutan, southwest China, Doha, Turkey, Europe, the UK, Spain, Morocco, New York and east coast USA, Canada, Orlando, Jamaica and finally Sydney.

"It would be without a doubt one of the best years of our lives and to have given this opportunity to the kids is something we will always feel proud of. We became a tight unit, managing ourselves and looking out for each other. It changed our whole outlook on life."

Jude and Andy know the kids are proud they did it, too, even though a year is a long time to be away from extended family and friends, and out of the normal routine of school and classroom life.

"They had to push on, deal with discomfort, handle tiredness and strangeness and foods and languages. They were so often out of their comfort zones. In hindsight, it is clear to them how character building this was and what essential life lessons they've learned. Tessa loved everything about Italy and James was sure Lionel Messi would be just around each corner through Spain. Andy and I were enthralled by India, loved exotic Morocco and felt privileged to be in Bhutan. A three-week Winnebago experience in Canada among the stunning autumn colours was a surprising bonus."

Andy Wooton and Jude Watson, with their children James and Tessa, in Bhutan.
Andy Wooton and Jude Watson, with their children James and Tessa, in Bhutan.

Their advice to anyone contemplating it? "The whole romantic illusion of 'winging it' while backpacking can be quite a nightmare in reality. We appreciated the countries where we'd already spent hours on the internet before we left, booking accommodation and mapping out our itinerary, rather than ending up scratchy and tired and lost. Planning made the year; it didn't restrict us.

"Travel is so personal but also so many people think they can't possibly do it. They worry about schooling, or whether the kids will get bored, or be okay without their familiar life. I think routines can be like a series of seatbelts around us. For us, to unclip each one of those, and start realising we could really do this, wander from country to country, watching the miles clock up, it filled us up. I'm glad we didn't wait till we're retired. It was amazing to experience it together as a family, and I'd go back tomorrow if we could."

Andy Wooton and Jude Watson, with their children James and Tessa, in Yangshuo, China.
Andy Wooton and Jude Watson, with their children James and Tessa, in Yangshuo, China.

● Do you have a question about travellling with your family? Email sundaytravel/ with family in the subject line.